By Gray Rohrer and Steven Lemongello
Florida Gov. Rick Scott took firm aim at Washington and "career politicians" as he officially declared himself a candidate for U.S. Senate during a campaign rally in Orlando on Monday.
The two-term Republican governor is challenging incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson in what will be one of the most expensive and hotly contested races in 2018.
Both major parties are likely to spend tens of millions of dollars, as Republicans seek to hold or expand on their one-seat margin in the Senate and Democrats seek to take control of the chamber.
"We have to all acknowledge that Washington is a disaster. It's dysfunctional. There is a lot of old, tired thinking up there," Scott said. "This concept of career politicians has got to stop. We have to have term limits on Congress."
Scott made his announcement in a small warehouse and loading area at ODC Construction, a company with 400 employees that Scott has touted as an example of how his policies have led to job growth. About 100 Republican officials, officeholders, candidates and their families crowded together, trying to get close to Scott to shake his hand or take a picture.
"It's not just that he came to Central Florida," said GOP state Rep. Bob Cortes, of Altamonte Springs. "He came to a business site, speaking to a small crowd in a warehouse. He didn't rent a big stadium. He came to where the people are."
Scott, 65, is a former hospital executive who became governor in 2010 with the help of $60.4 million of his own money, upsetting the GOP establishment along the way. His fundraising prowess, along with his personal wealth _ if he needs to use it _ sets up Nelson with a fierce challenge for re-election.
His announcement was a preview of expected attacks against Nelson, a three-term incumbent who previously served in the U.S. House, the state Legislature and in Cabinet-level elected positions in state government during a career that spans more than four decades.
But Nelson, 75, seemed unfazed by Scott's candidacy.
"I've always run every race like there's no tomorrow _ regardless of my opponent," Nelson said in a statement. "While it's clear that Rick Scott will say or do anything to get elected, I've always believed that if you just do the right thing, the politics will take care of itself."
Scott's candidacy was immediately bashed by several Democrats and progressive groups.
"Just like the rest of the Tallahassee establishment, Rick Scott is only looking out for himself _ that's why he gave tax breaks to wealthy and powerful millionaires like himself while slashing education spending and refusing federal help for hundreds of thousands of Floridians without health insurance," said Winter Park businessman Chris King, a Democratic candidate for governor.
Scott's support for President Donald Trump will be a major factor in the race. Even so, Scott has taken several moderate positions at odds with Trump, such as signing a bill with gun control provisions and supporting an extension to DACA, the program for illegal immigrants brought to the country as children that Trump ended last month.
But Scott's position on gun control is viewed skeptically by Democrats, who note that he did not embrace such action after the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in the same way he did after the mass shooting at a Parkland high school in February.
"(Scott) used the Pulse tragedy as a political prop while shamelessly touting an A-plus rating from the NRA," said Anna Eskamani, a Democratic candidate for an Orlando-area state House seat. "(Scott) wholeheartedly supports President Trump's anti-women, anti-immigrant and anti-equality agenda."
Attack ads began hitting the internet as soon as Scott made his announcement.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee unleashed a pair of Facebook ads slamming Scott and highlighting the $1.7 billion fine paid by HCA, the hospital company he led, for Medicare fraud in the 1990s.
Republicans responded with a website, nomorenelson.org, paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, casting Nelson as a do-nothing career politician. The National Republican Senate Committee followed with an ad bashing all Democrats, including Nelson, for voting against the tax-cut bill last year.
Scott echoed some of those criticisms, although he did not mention Nelson by name.
"We need to shake up Washington," he told supporters at the warehouse. "Let's stop sending talkers to Washington; let's send some doers to Washington."
The time and location of the announcement was not made official until hours before it started, but four Democratic protesters made it in time to stand outside and wave signs stating, "No to Scott in U.S. Senate" and "Health care is not a luxury."
One of them, Debbie Ryan, secretary of the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee, said, "If Mr. Scott really cared about the people of Florida, he would go over the grocery store here, where people have to buy dented canned food to survive" because of benefit cuts.
She said Scott "is going to get his tail whipped."
(c)2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)